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Ashton Lee currently resides in Shanghai where he advises companies on the China consumer market. He holds an MBA from the Oxford Said Business School and a bachelors in economics from the University of Chicago. You can find him on Twitter @MrAshtonLee.
I was living and working at the World Trade Center on that day, and this is what I remember.
I was a consultant at the time, and my office was in Tower Two on the 43rd floor. I had a meeting that morning that was cancelled just the night before. When the first plane struck, I was on the 18th floor, not yet at my office, and I remember looking at a nearby digital clock that read 8:46am. You could feel the building shake, and it was scary, not because the building moved, but to the degree that it did. I was used to working on the higher floors of both towers, and the Twin Towers were made to sway and move ever so slightly. You could sometimes feel it just a little during periods of heavy wind.
But this time it was different. This was not caused by wind; it was a sudden jolt. I looked outside the window and saw what I thought was a piece of metal flying by. My heart and my mind raced. Strange to say this now, but I felt VERY ALIVE, while a deep and sudden fear also crept over me.
Fear was soon replaced by a driving need to act. My body was full of adrenaline, and my mind was factoring over different scenarios within what must have been a few eye blinks. I recalled seeing a cable show a few weeks back that talked about how the towers were built, their structural make up, and particularly their height. I recalled the narrative saying the buildings were so tall that if they were to tip over, it would hit or shake New Jersey, I don't recall the exact words, but the meaning stuck with me. It became a dominant thought in my head.
I ran for the stairs. I was not the only one. I could hear someone shout that there was a fire. It became very crowded, but the exit at this early time was still orderly.
A small crowd started congregating outside the Marriott WTC, which was situated right between the two main towers of the World Trade Center area connecting the two buildings. People were dismayed and trying to figure out what was going on. Across the street was the Hudson River. My mind was still in worst case scenario mode; I thought if anything really happened to the buildings here it would be safer by the water than close to the buildings, and I imagined myself jumping in to prepare myself mentally.
I looked around, people were not moving. Even worse, joggers and nearby pedestrians were heading TOWARD the buildings to see what the commotion was about. I thought, this is madness!
I shouted as loud as I could, "If this building falls it will hit New Jersey! Run!" A lady screamed. I then started running toward the waters of the Hudson alongside Northern Battery Park, and others did too. I just wanted to get away far enough to assess the situation from a position of safety.
And I kept running. Looking back, I could see dark smoke start to form; it wasn't a good sign. The fear came back, but so did the need to act. It was still early, and the mobile phone networks had not yet jammed up. I called my sister to let her know that I was ok, that she may see New York in the news, but that I was not in the towers, more importantly that I loved everyone and that she should relay this message to our family members and especially my mom.
I needed to get off the island, that was my dominant thought. I headed toward Chelsea Piers, to the ferries I knew were there. Still seeing more people heading toward the commotion, I yelled at them, that I just came from there, and that they were headed in the wrong direction. Madness.
When I got to the ferries, I ran into another friend of mine who ran over from midtown, Times Square. We were there early enough where people had not caught up with what was going on, we still had to wait in line and pay for the ferry crossing.
I was on the ferry in the Hudson River when the first tower fell ... It was gut wrenching and surreal. The darkness of the smoke started to envelop the sky. People were crying, trying to call their loved ones, asking questions. A friend of mine would recall to me getting out of the subway stop for the WTC after 9am, while I was still running. He told me it was an image out of hell. He could see people jumping out of the buildings, everywhere there was a mad scramble by that time to get out. I can't fully fathom what his experience must have been like nor would I want to.
Was our country being attacked? No one knew. My friend and I decided that we needed to go somewhere far away, away from big buildings but with solid communication networks, and food supplies. His girlfriend at the time went to Yale University, and I thought there was a certain degree of safety within a closed area like a university in a small town. So that became our destination. Close enough to reach yet, far enough to regroup.
When we reached Jersey, we found a private car. She charged us 300USD or so, cash only. I went to the ATM, came back, and paid. As we drove further north, the skyline behind us became more and more enveloped in black smoke. It was like a scene out of a movie, that's what I was thinking. Phone lines were jammed up by this time. I would later reconnect with family and friends over email from the Yale campus. I turned on the news.
The world, our world, my own world; nothing would ever quite be the same.
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